In a bid to curb the spread of fake news, the US-based company is testing a feature, which enables users to detect harmful links sent and received.
Mayank Jain & Kiran Rathee report.
In yet another move to stem the spread of fake news and misinformation through its instant messaging app, Facebook-owned WhatsApp is testing a label, which marks “unusual” links sent on chats as “suspicious”.
The company is testing this feature in a beta version of its Android app, in a bid to crack down on fake news. The way it works is by identifying the characters in the link shared and noticing unusual patterns in the web address.
For instance, sometimes, characters are camouflaged to make suspicious sites seem real. Recently, a fake e-mail involving a United Kingdom company Global Sign was sent out to people with a link globalsign.uk, which is not a real company website, as the official website is hosted at globalsign.com. However, a lot of people apparently fell for the scam because the domain seemed realistic enough.
WhatsApp’s move comes at a time when the Indian government has been putting pressure on the company to act on the spread of fake news through its platform. The government asked WhatsApp to limit spam on its platform and find ways through technology to stop false messages from circulating far and wide. This came on the heels of dozens of lynchings reported around the country, allegedly after rumours spread on the instant messaging app.
In this regard, the company wrote back to the government and reassured it of its commitment to tackling the problem of fake news in India. WhatsApp has launched a slew of features since then as a way of displaying its commitment to stop the menace of fake news.
Recently, the company introduced a ‘forwarded’ label for messages which are directly forwarded by people from one chat to another. This allows the user to think twice before believing what the text on the screen reads and forwarding it further, the company stated.
Reports suggest that the company is also looking to limit forwarding of messages for its users in India. The company is set to be mulling an update that will allow a message to be forwarded only five times by a user even though those five people receiving it can forward it to five people each further. The company hopes this will put brakes on the spread of rumours in the country.
Now, the feature of checking suspicious links is being tested in the beta version as insiders said that they expect it to be rolled out on full scale soon. The company said on its website that the label will automatically appear when the link has unusual characters.
“Spammers may use these character combinations to trick you into tapping on links that appear to go to a legitimate website, but actually take you to a malicious site,” it stated.
WhatsApp further added that these checks on links happen only on the user device because of end-to-end encryption which doesn’t allow the company to see the content of messages. This also implies that WhatsApp won’t be able to stop a malicious link from being forwarded as it can only label it as suspicious once it has landed in someone’s chat.
The company illustrated this with an example of a site “https://?hatsapp.com/free-tickets” which it said is a suspicious link as what looks like the letter “w” in the link is actually two “v”. Another such vulnerability was found by Russian security firm Kaspersky, which said in a report released in May that there are fake websites which look like social media giant Facebook but have manipulative web addresses which make people believe that they are logging into the real site but their details get stolen. These websites use addresses such as services-facebook.com which seem realistic enough for a lay person to not verify twice. The company refused to comment further on the feature as it is still in beta.
On July 19, the government had issued a second notice to WhatsApp demanding more stringent solution to check fake news. The government had warned WhatsApp of legal action if it fails to curb viral circulation of fake news but the company is yet to respond.
Although the instant messaging app has put in more features to check fake news, WhatsApp has not yet replied to government’s second notice, an official from ministry of electronics and information technology said.
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